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At the Margin of One/Many Languages

Essays on South African Literature


Peter Horn

The essays collected here are responses to books of poetry and prose published during the transition period from the apartheid regime of the mid-1980s to the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994. The volume comprises a variety of texts written during the crucial mid-1980s – the time of the «Emergency» and the height of oppression – up to and including the installation of the first freely elected South African government in 1994.
In the years of anti-apartheid struggle, the immediate political conflict was pre-eminent in the minds of many poets but extended to broader concerns about race, writing and colonialism, such as the debate about the imbongi (African praise singer) as the true antecedent of the contemporary African poet. After the end of apartheid new challenges came to the South African book publishing industry and, thus, to South African writers, as they tried to make sense of the past and draw tentative lines into the future. The works of J. M. Coetzee, Njabulo Ndebele, Kelwyn Sole, Sandile Dikeni, Vincent Swart, Heather Robertson, Patrick Cullinan, Seitlhamo Motsapi, W. P. B. Botha and more are read against this changing social and political landscape.
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Dostoevsky in Cape Town: J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg


Hiding behind the mask of a dead poet, behind the “deep, criminal countenance of a saint”,1 who mourns the death of his son, is an undertaking fraught with difficulties,2 difficulties for the author and difficulties for the reader and critic, too, difficulties, which made Thomas Mann exclaim:

Of the demonic, that is how I feel, one should make poetry, not write. […] To dedicate to it critical essays, appears to me, to put it mildly, as indiscretion. Perhaps, very possibly so, this is only a euphemism of my laziness and cowardice.3

When I mention difficulties, I am not talking about those critics who illegitimately compared the main character and his imaginary Petersburg with historical realities which are not at stake. Or at least not in the way they imagined.4

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